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Use experience-level agreements to elevate IT service satisfaction

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Alan Nance, Managing Partner, CitrusCollab

Imagine that you and a friend go to a beautiful restaurant and the server comes over—not with a menu, a glass of water, and a cheery welcome, but with a service-level agreement (SLA) containing 25 key performance indicators (KPIs) that the restaurant intends to meet over the course of the next hour.

The server goes on to explain that for the service to work in line with the SLA, you, the customer, can request only one modification to the menu as presented unless you had made the request at the time of the reservation.

How would you respond? I am guessing you'd be bewildered.

Likewise, consider that most IT service organizations today exist—with a considerable amount of cost and effort—to measure and report data. But how much of that data is relevant to anyone using the service organization's service?

SLAs dominate our IT service management teams, our sourcing contracts, and our underpinning arrangements—agreements that support the SLA. Meanwhile, customer approval scores have barely budged; the average customer satisfaction with service desks, or outsourcing suppliers, hasn't significantly improved since the introduction of SLAs and KPIs. I am not saying that SLAs have no place; they do, just not at the front of the house.

Measuring what you can is not the same as doing what you must. It's time for a change. It's time to pivot from managing IT services to managing the consumer's experience of IT with experience-level agreements (XLAs).

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The new era of XLAs: Customer experience you can believe

We need to do better not just for our consumers, customers, and businesses, but also for our service staff. Think of all of the talented people who have dedicated their lives to trying to make services amazing for their customers, only to be trapped in this front-of-house SLA-think paradigm. They see their best efforts regularly disappoint, and they deserve more.

Marco Giannotten's book, Digital Empathy: When Tech Meets Touch, described a world where experience would lead in the design of our IT processes. That book kicked off a global reaction that has since become a journey. Today there is a renaissance of XLAs underpinning newly designed customer experience. Major organizations across the world, including Royal Philips, Heineken, and Eversource, are launching XLAs. 

How XLAs differ from SLAs

In XLAs, we put the outcomes that determine the consumer experience central to our design efforts. This is in stark contrast to SLAs, which primarily reflect our delivery perspective, e.g., what we need to do to deliver excellent service. 

Definitions from analyst firms like Forrester that say that "customer experience is how customers perceive their interactions with the company" have unintentionally put our process, our heat maps, our moments of truth, at the center of our thinking.

Indeed, customer experience is often defined as the sum of all customer interactions with our products or services. This definition might be too crude. It might not be the sum of interactions that determines the experience, but one significant area in the chain. So it's vital that we can monitor, detect, and react to any change in mood.

Unfortunately, most of our dashboards are averages of algorithms. They seldom have real-time experience indicators (XIs) and, when they do, they often fail to pick up the signal.

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Change your metrics

To tilt the balance, we need to stop using the internal metrics that we use to manage service and instead manage experience. Customer experience is co-created by the contribution of not only the customer's values, but also of the company providing the experience.

Experience implies customer involvement at different levels—rational, emotional, sensorial, physical, and spiritual. Today fewer than 2% of KPIs focus on experience. We need to change this by developing our understanding, monitoring, and management of XIs.

The core of delivering consumer experience is the XLA.

Understand the XLA realities

Here are a few myths and actual truths about implementing XLAs.

Myth: An XLA is just a reshaped SLA. 

  • An SLA is a contract, but an XLA is a commitment.
  • SLAs tend to rely on evidence to persist, but XLAs rely on dialogue to continue.
  • SLAs tend to create an adversarial perspective; XLAs tend to create a collaborative attitude.
  • SLAs tend to reflect contract for hire; XLAs are outcomes to be achieved.

Myth: An XLA replaces or is used instead of SLAs.

  • There is no doubt that an SLA can incorporate experience elements, but the syntax and taxonomy of SLAs often make including experience ineffective.
  • SLAs still reflect work that needs to be done to deliver against a service, but it just isn't used to determine the viability of the service relationship.

Myth: Technical measurements don't matter.

  • XLAs do not extinguish SLAs or KPIs. XIs support XLAs.
  • Ultimately these XIs will map to some underpinning delivery capability that you will manage.

Truth: KPIs often omit reflection on stakeholder enthusiasm and buy-in for importance of experience. 

  • Everywhere that XLAs have taken hold has required enormous support from senior leadership, but also an active contribution from the business consumer.

Truth: Cultural change is a significant factor affecting the adoption of XLAs. 

  • One of the unexpected factors of resistance to change is within IT.
  • Understand that suppliers have invested millions in their impressive yet ineffective tool sets and dashboards.
  • Service desk professionals have difficulty moving away from their reactive surveys.

Truth: XLAs can only be successful when you are organized to predict the experience that will be delivered against immediate feedback to ensure you provide the expected experience.

Truth: The governance structure needs to change.

  • You get the behaviors that you measure.
  • Customer experience requires a very different form of governance, where business experience, viability, and innovation create a trifecta of dialogue.
  • XLAs require a different approach to vendor management, to procurement, and to collaboration.

Truth and myth: There’s a tool for that.

  • Existing tools tend to be tower-oriented, measuring the state of a specific silo.
  • Sometimes existing tools will give an end-to-end perspective, but rarely will they indicate the effect that a particular state has on the customer experience.
  • There is an emergence of tooling that has been developed and configured explicitly to indicate experience.

Time to pivot

Pivoting from managing IT services to providing meaningful customer experience is a journey. The introduction of XLAs is a manageable entry point for this change.

Register for Service Management World, where ITSM Academy CSO Lisa Schwartz and I will speak on "XLAs: The Vital Anchor of Service Management." I will also be hosting a one-day workshop, "Making XLAs Work." The conference runs November 11-13, 2019.

[ Learn how robotic process automation (RPA) can pay off—if you first tackle underlying problems. See TechBeacon's guide. Plus: Get the white paper on enterprise requirements. ]